Tottenham Switch Gears To Get the Better of the Gunners

KaneAfter some late struggles, Tottenham managed to overcome Arsenal. It was a tight scoreline, only 1-0, and if Alexandre Lacazette had slotted home in the closing moments, the Gunners would’ve pinched a draw. That, in truth, wouldn’t have been an accurate reflection of the contest, as Mauricio Pochettino’s men outplayed their opposition for the most part.

“The performance was magnificent, amazing,” the Argentine manager noted. “I congratulate the players because they played so well and to win the derby, three points that put us in a very good position in the battle for the top four, is something to be really happy about.”

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Tottenham arrived with the desire to assert themselves at Wembley, while the Gunners, playing away from home, seemed content to hand over possession and hope to play on the break. Neither approach was inherently superior, and as Arsene Wenger pointed out, his Gunners could’ve seen a different result if their final ball was better during their counter-attacks. Yet despite that, Spurs always looked more likely to win it, even if it took them some time to figure out how best to generate opportunities against Arsenal.

Put simply, Tottenham couldn’t get through Arsenal’s 4-5-1 defensive set-up in the early going. They tried to play through the middle quite frequently, but with Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Jack Wilshere and holder Mohamed Elneny congesting that area, they found little joy while doing so. Throw in the fact that Arsenal’s wide men, on this occasion Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil, were tucking into tighter defensive locations to further cover off the middle, and Tottenham were always likely to struggle for traction through the centre.

Even when Tottenham did try to use their outlets on the flanks, either fullbacks Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies or left-winger Heung-min Son, it was often after a relatively slow build-up sequence. This meant that they couldn’t really whip in any early crosses, so when it came time for one of them to fire a ball into the box, Arsenal were well and truly settled in that part of the pitch. Spurs needed to be a little sharper in possession, something Christian Eriksen highlighted when he sauntered over to the left, from his nominal spot on the left-hand side, to collect the ball. He then quickly turned towards goal and, with Ozil still positioned higher up the field, hit a quick cross.

It caught the Arsenal defence offguard, and after Harry Kane eased away from Gunners left-back Nacho Monreal, he headed at goal. It was an uncharacteristically poor attempt, one nodded over the bar, but it nonetheless demonstrated a mechanism through which Tottenham could attack their opposition. They could get away from the congested centre by trying to use the additional space out wide, and if they could do it before Wenger’s men had time to settle into a supremely deep defensive shape, they could get it into the dangerous Kane.

Whether Pochettino noted this moment during the interval is hard to say, but either way, his players seemed eager to up the tempo and cross a little sooner in the second half. They came out of the blocks fast, and when Arsenal dropped off into that typically deep and centrally-based defensive shape, Spurs seemed prepared for it. They played the ball from right to left just minutes into the second 45, and when Ozil floated in from the flank to apply pressure to Mousa Dembele in the middle, it meant that Davies was free and clear on the right-hand side.

The Belgian found him quickly, and with plenty of space into which to gallop, Davies took his time. He saw both Kane and Dele Alli arriving at the far post, and with no immediate pressure, he summed things up beautifully. Xhaka tried to get out to him, but by then Davies had already whipped a ball deep into the area. Kane rose sharply, way above the Arsenal defence, to get there first, and he finished the job with a well-directed header.

That gave Tottenham a 1-0 lead, and when Erik Dier produced a similar cross from the other flank just minutes later, Kane should’ve doubled it. Despite the miss, it was again a case of hitting that quick ball from out wide, before the Gunners could steady themselves, to generate the chance. That’s what allowed them to take the lead, and from that point on, Tottenham sat back to a greater degree and tried to play on the counter.

That strategy worked for the most part, at least until the final few minutes when Arsenal started to hit longer passes up to their speedy frontline, and though Spurs rode their luck a little in the closing stages, it was an otherwise accomplished performance. Many of the club’s players spoke of how they should’ve finished things earlier, and they were probably right. That, however, shouldn’t detract from a very strong match, one in which they completely outplayed their North London rivals throughout the 90 minutes. Now, as they look ahead to a tough UEFA Champions League encounter against Juventus, they can draw upon this showing in order to generate some confidence.

After all, Tottenham have one of the best strikers in Europe, and with a cohesive system designed to maximise the side’s abilities, Pochettino will be feeling optimistic heading into the continental clash.

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